Nov. 7 (Bloomberg) -- The Boston Red Sox have won the World Series three times since 2004. This seems a good time to ask: How many times will they win it all this century?
A plausible answer will presumably lie between three and 26, the number of times the New York Yankees won the World Series in the 20th century (the Yankees have won a total of 27 times, most recently in 2009).
There is obviously a great deal of randomness in baseball, and no team can dominate every year. Even during their dominant spells, the Yankees would sometimes fail to win it all (they are 27 for 40 in the World Series, where they first played in 1921).
The Red Sox’s history should make us cautious about even short-term predictions: They won the World Series five times at the beginning of the 20th century (starting with what was arguably the first of the kind in 1903), and then didn’t win again after 1918. Just in the past 10 years, they have experienced real lows -- including last season -- as well as spectacular highs.
Still, if we can understand why the Red Sox have done so well this century, we might be able to make an educated guess about the broad historical pattern: Are they the Yankees of 1923, poised on the cusp of greatness, or will that most heartless of all statistical phenomena, mean reversion, now extend its cold fingers?
Tom Kochan, my colleague at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that the Red Sox represent the best in distributed leadership, teamwork and cooperation. He must be right that, seen this way, they are a model to us all.
But how much of the Red Sox’s recent run is due to their precise mix of players, managers and owners -- and will these elements remain favorable? Alternatively, how much is more simply about economics? (I’m ruling out that their facial hair was a crucial element, based on Roger Angell’s analysis.)
The Red Sox won the World Series this year largely because David Ortiz hit almost .700 in the series (he was at .733 through five games, and finished 11-for-16, which is .688) and had an on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.948. Also, Boston’s pitching was just a bit more outstanding than what the St. Louis Cardinals had to offer.
The Ortiz-plus-pitching explanation would suggest that the Red Sox may be done. Ortiz, normally the designated hitter, is 37 and reportedly had his ankles wrapped in ice after at least one game. The demands on modern pitchers also make it hard to predict how long a career will last.
Pitchers John Lackey and Jake Peavy are under contract until 2014, and the club has an option on Jon Lester for next season (for precise conditions and more contract details, see this link). Ortiz is under contract through the end of next season. The length of contracts for other stars varies, but it is easy to see how this team could be very different in a year or two.
More generally, it is harder to sustain dynasties based on individual players in the age of free agency. Stars often leave for more money -- and that’s part of what happened to the Red Sox after their historic 2004 win. Alternatively, the team may end up overpaying to retain fan favorites long past their prime. This year’s Yankees, with the second-largest payroll in the sport, might be considered something of a cautionary tale.
The manager obviously matters. When to intentionally walk a batter is a crucial decision, and one that didn’t always go well for Mike Matheny, manager of the Cardinals. Lifting or leaving in a pitcher under pressure is always a huge call. John Farrell, the Red Sox manager, is on a four-year contract that ends in 2016.
But baseball isn’t soccer, where managers are frequently all-important (see, for example, Manchester United’s struggles just a few months after Alex Ferguson retired). The Red Sox have won their World Series under two managers, and while managerial decisions can lose the day, they are unlikely to be the cornerstone of success. I agree with Kochan that the relevant model for baseball resembles “distributed leadership,” in which various people step up in different ways to contribute (see Ortiz’s impromptu pep talk in Game 4).
Owners also matter, and it is hard to find fault with the group led by John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino that bought the Red Sox in 2001. The most important decision must be how much the owners trust the general manager. When do they push him to do better? When is there a structural break (a player is too old to perform) and when is a slump just part of the normal process? The general manager makes the big personnel calls, but the intangible and unobservable (to outsiders) relationship with the owners must be essential.
These owners are on their second general manager. Theo Epstein did well and has moved on to the Chicago Cubs. Ben Cherington has enjoyed great early success, but this is a high-pressure job and GMs have rarely served more five years with the Red Sox.
In any case, it is hard to see even the best ownership structure lasting more than two or three decades.
Probably the biggest long-term driver of results is also the simplest: economics. The Red Sox had the fifth-largest payroll in baseball this year, and this kind of financial advantage presumably will last. Baseball has income-redistribution mechanisms across teams and these kinds of details may change over time, but teams with a large number of supporters generate more revenue over time. (Did I mention that I’m a Red Sox fan?)
Baseball, like many other sports, seems likely to turn out like English soccer, routinely dominated by half a dozen or so clubs -- with the occasional aberration in single-elimination-format competitions.
To date, World Series wins have been widely distributed (other than the Yankees). Baseball in the coming century is unlikely to be dominated by one team. But the sport is likely to remain permanently tilted toward the already-rich, like the rest of U.S. society.
In the 21st century, the Red Sox are likely to win the World Series 12 times. Many of those wins will come with their current ownership structure.
(Simon Johnson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management as well as a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics, is co-author of “White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You.”)
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